People either love it or hate it. The monumental sculpture, entitled Mountains and Clouds, occupies the nine-story atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. Rising 51 feet, the mountains are formed from 36 tons of sheet steel painted black. Suspended above this stabile is a 75-foot-wide black mobile, representing clouds. Constructed of aircraft aluminum, the mobile is designed to rotate in random patterns set by a computer-controlled motor.
In 1975, months before construction of the Hart Building began, Capitol officials invited five sculptors to submit designs for a work that would harmonize with the atrium’s surrounding white marble architecture and yet stand apart from the cluttering distraction of adjacent doors, windows, and balconies. In April 1976, 77-year-old Alexander Calder won the design commission. Forty years earlier, Calder had invented the mobile and stabile as art forms. Although Calder had previously designed a mobile attached to a stabile, this was his first—and only—work to place them as separate units within a single sculptural composition.
On November 10, 1976, Calder presented his scaled model to congressional officials and the building’s architect. To accommodate their comments, he made several on-the-spot adjustments with a borrowed pair of pliers and metal shears. Leaving all parties happy with his final design, he returned to New York City, where, later that evening, he died.
In 1979, midway through the building’s construction, severe cost overruns led Congress to eliminate funding for Calder’s sculpture. When the building opened in 1982, its empty atrium appeared depressingly barren. To fill that void, former New Jersey Senator Nicholas Brady organized the Capitol Art Foundation, which raised $650,000 to pay for Calder’s work and its installation. A team of fabricators devoted more than a year to assembling the clouds: painting, sanding, repainting in seemingly endless cycles.
In March 1986, the clouds rose to the heavens and construction of the mountains by another firm proceeded more rapidly. The Senate dedicated Mountains and Clouds on May 5, 1987.
Today, there are two problems that Calder failed to anticipate. The apparatus designed to rotate the clouds at 140 different speeds has been out of service for years. And, no one has yet found an easy way to remove the paper airplanes that passersby enjoy sailing from the upper floors onto the clouds’ surface.